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Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Why we don't need Lib Dem spin

In recent weeks we've had sections of the media, the Labour Party, the Green Party and the continuing Liberal Party, suggesting that Lib Dem members are dissatisfied with the performance of their party in government. It's political gameplaying of course, and the dissatisfaction is sometimes more assumed than real, but it stems from a mistaken belief that the Lib Dems in government have become (in the words of Caroline Lucas) "apologists for brutal and savage cuts" and that ordinary party members would therefore be better advised to come over to their "natural home" (i.e. anywhere but the Lib Dems, it would seem).

We've seen the Lib Dem reaction to this, which largely consists of various MPs playing up our achievements in government, claiming "victories" on policy and making dubious claims about apparently huge increases in membership. Nick Clegg last week said that party conference will be a "celebration" of the Lib Dems' role in government (he obviously hasn't seen the agenda in that case) while Vince Cable has done his utmost to present Royal Mail privatisation as the fulfilment of long-standing Lib Dem policy. We've been told that Osborne's budget was "fair" when it was clearly anything but. Meanwhile, over on Lib Dem Voice, whose contributors I generally have a lot of respect for, we're seeing a large number of articles which are almost uncritically supportive of the coalition and defending it at all costs.

In fact, we're seeing more spin from our own party than I'm comfortable with. We're making the New Labour machine look positively amateurish. Not only is this spin dishonest and more than faintly embarrassing, it's also completely unnecessary.

We don't need to react to criticisms that we're supporting the Conservatives by being dishonest and claiming non-existent "victories". Neither do we need to defend the coalition - it's plainly ridiculous to claim that the government is doing what a Lib Dem majority government would do. People understand that a minority partner in coalition isn't likely to get things its own way, so it's both disingenuous and counter-productive for either our supporters or detractors to pretend otherwise.

The Scottish - and British - public are not going to be conned by spin, especially when it's pathetically dishonest, such as Cable's insistence that Royal Mail's sell-off represented a victory for liberal values. If we keep on "defending" our position in this way, inevitably we will play into the hands of our political opponents and ensure that voters will never trust us again. This tactic is incredibly naive and short-sighted.

I believe that collective responsibility in coalition government is vital for its continued success. I have no time for loose canons, such as Tim Farron and Simon Hughes, who respectively helped to undermine the government with careless talk of "toxic" Tories and proposals of a veto for Lib Dem MPs. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a minority partner in coalition and, as we saw in the early days of the Scottish Parliament, collective responsibility can be a huge disadvantage as it severely restricts the scope for the introduction of new ideas or criticism of the majority view. But this the political reality in which we find ourselves and we have to work it to our advantage.

So far, the party has not reacted well to the criticisms of the media and opposition parties. We have simply played into their hands by defending - time after time - the coalition and its policies. We do not need to do this, especially as there was no realistic opportunity for an alternative government. What the Lib Dems have to do instead is to make it transparent and obvious that, while we are bound by collective responsibility and support the coalition government, we realise that we are not able to achieve the things we want to while we are simply a minority party in coalition. Without undermining the notion of collective responsibility by publicly opposing government policy, we would be better advised to loudly advocate distinctive liberal principles and argue the case for changes and policies to be implemented in a more liberal way.

That might not make the same kind of headlines as implausible claims of policy victories, but it is far more likely to resonate with the public who realise that our influence in government - although significant - is limited by the reality that the system works in favour of the majority partner. An attitude that "this policy is a step in the right direction, it's taking us towards where we want to be" is far more honest (and believeable) than claiming "this is our policy; it always has been - what a great victory for us!"

The challenge for the Lib Dems is not how to defend the coalition. We can not allow ourselves to fall into that trap. The real challenge is in successfully maintaining distinctive principles - if not necessarily distinctive policies - within the limits of collective responsibility. When we do this, it will be far more difficult for opponents to falsely portray us as propping up a Tory government - whatever the coalition's policy positions.

We don't need spin, which only serves to make us appear disingenuous at best, but substance. We can't realistically be held to account for failing to deliver every manifesto commitment; it's plain for even Daily Mail readers to see that we're not in a position to implement much of the policy we have campaigned on. That is not a betrayal - that is the very nature of coaltion government, which requires policy compromises.

While coaliton demands compromising on policy, it does not demand compromising on principle. It is my distinctive principles that make me a liberal, not my party's most recent policy document. If the Lib Dems want to gain the trust of voters, they won't do so through spin but by communicating liberal principles and values.

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